Teaching Genetics, Valuing Families

I was meaning to link to this piece from the NYTimes blog, Motherlode, some time ago.  I guess it got away from me with the end of the semester and all.   But it’s not time-sensitive and since I’m in catch-up mode, I’ll do it now.   

There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of genetic linkage between parent and child on this blog.   Much of it has been spurred by various topics related to assisted reproductive technology (ART).   When a couple uses ART to create a child, the child is often not genetically related to both of its parents.   Sometimes it is not related to either.  And this, of course, is also true in adoption. 

 I’m well-aware that some readers place great store in genetic linkage and would shape future public policy around it.   But whatever weight is attached to genetic linkage in formulating future policy, it’s also worth considering how we deal with that linkage (and more particularly with its absence) in presently existing families.  

There are millions of adoptive children in the world.   These children are being raised by parents who are not genetically related to them.   Stressing the importance of genetic linkage has the effect, whether it is intended or not, of undermining these children’s family’s.  

This is poignantly illustrated by the piece I’ve linked to.   Jenni Levi and David Smith have a ten-year-old adopted daughter.   As part of a science class she was to ask her parents about various genetically determined traits.  But of course, the adopted daughter couldn’t have inherited genetically determined traits from either of her parents.   For her, all the assignment lead her to was the conclusion “I’m not really in your family.” 

It’s easy to see the damage that is done by this lesson.   And I’m fairly confident that it is unintentional.   No one meant to be undermine the child’s family.   But this doesn’t make it less hurtful.   

Like the authors of the piece, I do believe in science and I certainly believe  that children should be taught genetics as part of a sound science education.  I’m not a science teacher and so I wouldn’t know how to proceed from there, but David Smith happens to train science teachers.    He said:    

 I know that kids need to learn that offspring of all species tend to look like their biological parents. It’s one of the fundamental underpinnings of an understanding of genetics. That doesn’t mean, however, that kids have to learn this from their own biological parents.”

 “The pedagogical solution to this problem is easy. Teachers should teach population biology (there’s a great collaborative activity at k12science.org, for example) instead of pedigree genetics. Kids still learn that offspring resemble their biological parent, but they also learn that not all dominant traits are common. Exploring this phenomenon allows students to begin to come to grips with natural selection and the fact that dominance and advantage are separate things.”

Two other points worth noting.   First, though the people here are writing about adoption, kids in many other situations will have the same experience.   Lots of kids don’t live with those they are genetically related to for a host of reasons. 

second, genetics lessons aren’t the only place where schools tend to isolate kids whose families don’t fit into the genetically related mom/dad package.    Father’s day and mother’s day present all sorts of issues for children whose families lack one or the other (or perhaps contain two of one).   Family tree exercises that only offer specified slots (two parents, each of whom have two parents, and so on) pose problems.   The solution that David Smith offered here makes me think that there are creative solutions to all of these sorts of problems, if we just see that the problems exist.

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11 responses to “Teaching Genetics, Valuing Families

  1. Thanks for that link. In the Biological Foundations lab that I teach, we often use pedigree analysis to demonstrate inheritance. Every semester I have a student that has trouble with the assignment for one reason or another- step families, adoption, death in the family, whatever. Every semester I’ve tried to figure out something more acceptable, and maybe this is a good chance to change things.

    In general, I don’t think people really consider how what they do helps to alienate or hurt families that are outside the nuclear model. We just don’t get that insisting there is one way to do something, or one right answer hurts every one that doesn’t fit that model. And frankly, I’d be surprised if the nuclear family was a majority of families. Very surprised.

  2. First, I agree that teachers need to be more sensitive to the variety of backgrounds their pupils come from. Genetics aside, not everyone is able to go ask their mom or dad anything they want anytime, and many children are made to feel wierd or abnormal.

    Still,

    I’d be very surprised if all it took is one science lesson to convince a child that her adoptive family is not her real family. My bet is that she’s actually been thinking about it for a long time.

    I also don’t see how the lesson could have been taught to bring out another point. The go home and ask your parents is the icing on the cake to the lesson, while it could have been omitted, the point of the lesson, the genetic aspect, would have remained the same.

    • I’m not a science teacher so I don’t know how else the lesson could be handled, though I think I understand the suggestion (and link) in the article and that seems plausible. But the main point I’d make is one you raise–teachers need to be sensitive to the range of situations presented in a classroom. At a minimum you could say “some of you may want to ask your family…” instead of blithely assuming everyone can and will. As you say, there are a number of reasons why people might not be able to. To give an assignment that only some of the class can do and to raise all these other peripheral issues probably isn’t the most effective teaching.

      This is not at all to say that children shouldn’t learn about genetics–I think they should. But I assume the point of the exercise in fourth grade isn’t to make any particular child question her particular family structure, but rather to learn things about dominant and recessive traits and, as the author points out, perhaps natural selection. With that in mind, I bet there are ways to shape the assignment to acknowledge the existence of a wide variety of family forms.

      Finally, I think it’s a bit unreasonable to say anything about this specific family from the one anecdote we have.

  3. I agree kisarita. The child may have an “inkling” that she is adopted but afraid to ask. Genetic lineage is very important to one’s identity and I believe should be a fundamental right of every child to know regardless of who raises them. I also think open adoptions to the point of allowing a bio connection can be very healthy. I wonder who feels most threatened about allowing this?

    • I really don’t think it’s fair to project this onto the family that is the subject of the writing. Maybe we all read it differently, but I think the child knew she was adopted before this. The exercise made her feel like somehow that made her family a less legitimate one, and that’s a shame. But honestly, we don’t know nearly enough to attach this to these people.

      Thinking about your comments more generally, it’s often better for people to have more access to information in case they want it, and this is much the same. But I think it’s taken a substantial shift ain societal attitudes bout adoption to make open adoption a practical reality. I think it is a good thing, but from my perspective it’s important to remember that it isn’t just as simple as making a rule one way or another.

  4. marilynn huff

    While I am for getting everything out in the open on the official records of a child’s birth so that there is no chance in hell the truth can ever be concealed from the child by virtue of omission, I see no reason to have lesson plans that cannot be accomplished by all students. I’m surprised to hear that genetics is still being taught this way. The exercise should be based on some neutral examples the homework should be based on neutral examples and it should spark interest and discussion at home but that should not be part of the assignment.

  5. It also seems to me that the girl in the article already knew she was adopted.

    As an alternative lesson, the population study does look cool although it doesn’t illustrate exactly the same points. Another way would be to have the student analyze someone else’s genetic pedigree. For neutral examples, as Marilynn suggested, everyone could do the teacher’s pedigree if that’s feasible, or that of a different famous person who has genetic family images available (Prince Harry, Suri Cruise…).

    It is amazing that such exercises are still used despite the family diversity out there. But for some reason it can be so hard to see that there is a problem. There seems to be a tendency to generalize a frequent experience into a universal one. I remember a Jehovah’s Witness in my public-school 4th-grade class who sat alone at her desk through all our class holiday parties. I don’t remember the teacher doing anything to accommodate that student or to stop our teasing her. So it’s easy for me to imagine a kid sitting alone because she doesn’t have a father to make a Father’s Day craft for, and the teacher just doesn’t have the vocabulary or conceptual resources or time to deal with it. I can also see the schools, for this reason, throwing up their hands and avoiding Father’s Day altogether, which would be a terrible solution in my opinion.

  6. I agree teachers ought to be sensitive to the fact that some kids are adopted or otherwise not genetically related to their caregivers. But still, those kids are a small minority and lessons are planned around majority culture almost all the time. I see no reason why genetics should be an exception.

  7. It does seem to me the girl knew about her being adopted otherwise her response to the teacher would make no sense. I must have not read that part of the post close enough before I responded, so in all fairness, I retract that the child might have been afraid to say something. I do agree with the adoptive father’s way of teaching the subject of genetics. It is a subject that requires a great deal of sensitivity.

  8. I’m not so sure. He said we are your real family and they are your genetic family.

    Its fine and wonderful to reassure her that they are her real family in terms of love commitment unbreakeable bonds and mutual obligations.

    But I don’t agree with him in implying that her genetic family is not real. It is her task to develop her conclusions on what her relationship is to them. It is not his to impose them on her.

  9. I think we agree kisarita and I am hopefully she will be allowed to develop her own conclusions. The adoptive father sounds very transparent with her.

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